Since 30 Rock went off air in 2013, Judah Friedlander, most famous for his role as sexually challenged writer Frank Rossitano, has made New York’s comedy clubs his main stage, performing six or seven nights a week and weaving sharp crowd interactions through his hilarious sets. That energy defines Friedlander’s excellent and intimate debut special, America is the Greatest Country in the United States, which is now streaming on Netflix. “Being an American is a pre-existing condition,” he snappily opens before diving into seriously funny riffs on Columbus Day and anti-vaxxers. (“I don’t think anti-vaxxers are anti-science, they’re just pro-disease rights,” he quips.) Playboy chatted with Friedlander about his special, Tina Fey’s influence, America’s propaganda complex, the real fake news and America’s humor deficit.
From Full Frontal With Samantha Bee to The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, politically charged comedy is at an all-time high. How will America is the Greatest Country in the United States surprise viewers?
The element of surprise is key in comedy; it’s kind of what punch lines are all about. I’m amazed at how many people in comedy don’t have punch lines in their jokes. So hopefully viewers will be surprised throughout. Most of the material in this is thematic satire on American exceptionalism and all the things that fall under that in U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Some of the satire’s overt, some of it’s more subversive. None of it is preachy; it’s all done in an absurd, fun, surreal kind of way.
Your title seems to be challenging the propagandistic notion that the United States, for all its weaknesses, is still number one.
There’s so many people in this country who aren’t even aware of the propaganda that this country has on its own citizens. And it comes from the Democrats and the Republicans. If you watch the news here, they will say, during the election, that we’re electing the leader of the free world. It’s like woah, woah, woah. We’re electing the president of the United States, not the president of earth.
That narcissism and propaganda of narcissism blinds so many people to any problems we might have. So when black people complain about being shot by cops, there might be many white people thinking, “Well what are they complaining about? The cops are the good guys. They must’ve done something wrong. How could there be anything wrong in this country? We’re number one!” That comes from both of the main political parties. So Republicans will think the only thing holding back this country are the Democrats, and the Democrats put out there the only thing holding us back are Republicans. Many people in America view things as basically good guys versus bad guys but a lot of times it’s actually bad guys versus bad guys.
For the first year Trump was running for president, all the news did was kiss his ass. They made a lot of money off him.
Your acting ranges from a Curb Your Enthusiasm cameo to American Splendor. How did acting influence your special?
I’m a stand-up comedian first; all art forms influence each other. I had a little part in The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. I was so impressed with what an amazing physical actor he is. He gets so much power and emotion across just using his physicality. Those are things I try to do in my stand-up performance. It’s not just the words, and how you say the words, it’s the whole physical presence.
Working at 30 Rock, one of the things that rubbed off on me there was how tightly things were written and edited, especially by Tina Fey. Every line had a meaning and affected every other line. There was no filler. Alec Baldwin is an amazing performer. He’s got such a strong presence and big charisma.
In America is the Greatest Country in the United States, you riff, “I think God is fake news.”
Donald Trump’s assault on the media is more dangerous and bigger than what other people in this country have done before. He says anytime the news doesn’t agree with him, they are lying and they are fake. For the first year and a half that Trump was running for president, all the news did was kiss his ass, constantly. They loved him, they made a lot of money off him. They weren’t covering lots of other stories. So, yes, the news was fake news, but in a way that helped him, not hurt him. Now, with some embarrassment, the news is actually trying to do a bit of a better job. But they still cover many things horribly or not at all.
Do facts matter? I think what people believe matters. When I say “I think God is fake news,” that’s what that’s about. People get offended. “You can’t say God is fake.” I say, “Not your God, the other God.” People think that their God is God, and not Allah. And vice-versa.
That’s one of the reasons I hated school. School taught you to memorize things. It hardly ever taught you to think. People are fed propaganda, from whatever angle, throughout their lives. People don’t think much. It’s bizarre. Look at advertising and fashion: Wear these Nike shoes, buy this purse. People just fucking do it. All of a sudden people are obsessed with kale and avocado toast. Why? “I used to be blind, but then I went gluten-free.”
You recently tweeted, “What if all of Twitter is a russian bot.”
It’s a very big story: Did Russia steal the election for Trump? Did they help get the election for Trump? I would say that yes, Russia did help Trump get elected. But when so much of the media and people talk about how Trump colluded with Russia to get elected that blinds them to seeing all the other things that helped Trump get elected. That goes back to American exceptionalism again. We don’t want to look at our problems and deficiencies that got him elected. We would rather say someone from the outside fucked things up and that’s why it happened.
Part of what makes seeing you perform in New York a magical experience is your interaction with crowds, as your special explores. In one bit, you, a Jewish comedian, challenge some Israelis. What was the idea behind that bit?
That’s an issue which is hardly ever talked about nationally in America, because Israel has always been our ally. Israel needs to be analyzed. There are more young people in their teens and twenties who are politically progressive about these sorts of issues than previous generations, which gives a lot of hope.
Sometimes the PC crowd is correct: certain behavior or words are wrong.
Is comedy that professes we’re all irrevocably doomed helpful in the long run?
My act is a mix of optimism and pessimism. I’m a pessimist, an optimist-pessimist, but I’m a fighter. Sometimes I think the optimists are the real pessimists. Because if you’re being pessimistic, the optimists will say, “Hey, man, that’s a really shitty attitude.” I’m like, “Well who’s being the pessimist now?”
The media almost always portrays protests in a negative light. They show the protests when they are violent, which is rare. “Who are these kids? Why aren’t they getting a job? They’re dangerous. They’re extremists.” People forget Martin Luther King Jr. was portrayed as a violent troublemaker back in the day. The other thing is if only black people protest for black people’s rights, if only gay people protest for gay people’s rights, not much is gonna get accomplished. When it comes to human rights, everyone has to speak up for everyone.
Context and nuance are important, right? Should decent comics not be allowed to use provocative words and explore provocative ideas?
Sometimes the PC crowd is correct: certain behavior or words are offensive or wrong or dangerous or bigoted, and they have a point. But sometimes they overreach and say you can never talk about this subject ever—no excuses—and that’s wrong.
Sometimes actual bigots will play the freedom of speech, “I’m not PC” angle to actually do bad, dangerous, bigoted things. But when someone on the left, say a Black Lives Matter person speaks up, they will label them a racist or anti-American or a terrorist. In reality, all that Black Lives Matter person is saying is, “I have human rights, please respect them”.
So it can be tricky to figure out who is sincere or correct. Because the freedom of speech issue can be twisted to fit peoples'own agendas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with freedom of speech. And I’ve had that happen to me from both sides. So yes, intent and nuance are extremely important.
To close on a clear-cut subject, what do you think about the Harvey Weinstein scandal?
I’m doing bits about this but they’re still in development. I’ve put serious tweets out there, not jokes. I support anyone and everyone who is a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment. Anyone who is a sexual assaulter or sexual harasser, get the fuck out of here. Stop, go to prison, whatever the fuck it takes. I think this moment is bigger than Harvey Weinstein. Hopefully these sexual predators are not going to be tolerated and not going to have the power they had before.
Judah Friedlander’s special America is the Greatest Country in the United States is on Netflix now.